A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Drunk
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By Sean Braswell
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It seems like so many great writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner, have had their mouths to a bottle as much as their hands on the keys. An extraterrestrial could be forgiven for perceiving alcohol as an occupational hazard for writers, or even some form of literary aid, given how often writing and drinking go hand in hand down literature’s illustrious trail. Faulkner claimed that “civilization begins with distillation,” Hemingway that “a man does not exist until he is drunk.”
Another great 20th-century writer who took his art — and his drinking — very seriously was the playwright Eugene O’Neill, often called “America’s Shakespeare.” The only U.S. dramatist to ever win the Nobel Prize for literature, O’Neill almost single-handedly transformed the American theater from vaudeville to fine art, filling its stages with a cast of characters that included prostitutes, sailors, gang members and, yes, plenty of drunks. The playwright deftly captured their dialect, mannerisms and behavior, and for good reason — he had spent countless hours drinking with them. Indeed, O’Neill’s life illustrates alcohol’s double-edged sword: The playwright’s alcoholism as a young man not only shaped, and stunted, the trajectory of his career but also helped enrich his works, allowing him, especially once he was free of the bottle, to convert his characters’ battles with addiction into a form of tragic poetry.
Did O’Neill reach his full potential?
As Robert Dowling chronicles in Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, O’Neill had a front-row seat to behavioral addictions from a young age. As a teenager, he watched as his mother, a morphine addict, ran screaming from their house and jumped in a nearby river in an attempt to kill herself. Both O’Neill’s father and his older brother were heavy drinkers, and young Eugene followed suit. He was kicked out of Princeton University for drunken behavior his freshman year, and spent years overseas as a sailor and vagabond, drunk and sleeping on park benches in places like Buenos Aires, Argentina. “He had a real problem with alcohol,” says Dowling, and he eventually “came to Greenwich Village the old-fashioned way, by sort of drinking his way.”
By 1916, O’Neill was a 27-year-old alcoholic — without a single writing success under his belt — drinking among the rabble and bohemians at the Village’s “Hell Hole,” the backroom bar at the Golden Swan saloon. He wrote virtually nothing but soaked up the stories and the conversation of those around him as prolifically as the Hell Hole’s patrons soaked up their five-cent beers. That summer a life raft came for O’Neill when he visited an artist colony in the Cape Cod village of Provincetown and met bohemian journalist Louise Bryant. O’Neill showed up in Bryant’s living room trembling from the D.T.’s and she offered to let him stay in a nearby fisherman’s shack.
By the Fourth of July, O’Neill had started an affair with Bryant; under her moderating influence — her father had been an alcoholic — he stopped drinking as much and started writing. His play Bound East for Cardiff was the talk of Provincetown that summer and launched his career. After Bryant left him to report on war and revolution overseas during 1917, O’Neill sank into a deep depression and returned to a turbulent life of drinking and writing. He would go on extreme benders, says Dowling, then quit cold turkey and write a complete play, then hit the bottle for months again, and repeat the cycle.
This cycle went on for years until O’Neill, close to 40, finally managed to quit altogether in 1927. But he remembered well the people he had met during his younger, drunken days, and, more important, the experience of being an addict. Alcoholism and drinking pervade O’Neill’s final, and arguably best, plays. His stage drunks are full-bodied characters with frustrated dreams and regrets. A saloon serves as the backdrop for The Iceman Cometh, and by the end of the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night, almost none of its characters are sober.
O’Neill’s career was cut short by a neurological disorder that he died attributing (wrongly as it turned out) to the drinking of his youth. Did O’Neill reach his full potential? It’s hard not to wonder what he could have done had his life not been so affected by alcohol, depression and disease. But perhaps it is those afflictions that gave his art such power. O’Neill didn’t appreciate life because it was pretty. “Prettiness is only clothes-deep,” he once observed. “I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness … for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation.”